I should note that as more of my periodical-type reading moves online, my hard-copy subscriptions are dropping off one by one. However, it seems that National Geographic has not made much of an effort to engage with the emerging Web 2.0 community, so this subscription may continue coming as a shrink-wrapped bulk of waxed carbon, which, incidentally, is somewhat incongruous with the magazine's concern for the environment, but we'll get to that in a moment.
National Geographic always had an intimidating aura for me, most likely because my primary mental picture was several meters worth of dense yellow on my Grandparents' bookshelves. It wasn't until the late spring of 2004 - already out of High School - that I properly "discovered" the magazine, working for some friends and staying in their home, where there were several random back issues lying about. One contained an utterly absorbing article on a WWII naval battle. That's all it took: I was hooked.
Almost immediately I recognized that this publication was something of great international and cultural significance. Here were articles on - literally - everything under the sun, superbly crafted and accompanied by stunning, extravagant photography.
I was surprised at the cost of subscription, which at the time was a reasonable $19. I just checked, and you can now subscribe for $15.00, about what it costs to buy a T-shirt. It seems the magazine's long history, vast readership, and substantial advertising revenue catapult it into it's own tier above the competition. This economic advantage may eventually cause the editors to become complacent, but in the main, (as far as I can tell,) the journalistic standards remain relatively high.
It is common knowledge that the magazine is heavily weighted with liberal bias, and this can be frustrating at times. Of course, all sides claim to be "committed to facts," so that argument quickly dead-ends. It seems it is our respective interpretations of the facts - as well as the presuppositions that we bring to these interpretations - that are disparate. It seems we all could use to take a deep breath and look at the issues - environmentalism in particular - with fresh eyes.
Laying aside these distortions, real or imagined, it is hard to deny that these folks are engaging with the world intelligently, creatively and artistically. The sheer variety of subject matter covered is mind-blowing- everything from intriguing interviews with unique persons, to fascinating cultural journalism, to raw science. Every issue serves up a square meal.
To further elucidate my argument for the magazine's value, I offer this quote from John Stuart Mill's Inaugural Address at St. Andrews:
We are born into a world which we have not made; a world whose phenomena take place according to fixed laws, of which we do not bring any knowledge into the world with us. In such a world we are appointed to live, and in it all our work is to be done. Our whole working power depends on knowing the laws of the world - in other words, the properties of the things which we have to work with, and to work among, and to work upon. We may and do rely, for the greater part of this knowledge, on the few who in each department make its acquisition their main business in life. But unless an elementary knowledge of scientific truths is diffused among the public, they never know what is certain and what is not, or who are entitled to speak with authority and who are not: and they either have no faith at all in the testimony of science, or are the ready dupes of charlatans and imposters. They alternate between ignorant distrust, and blind, often misplaced, confidence. Besides, who is there who would not wish to understand the meaning of the common physical facts that take place under his eye? Who would not wish to know why a pump raises water, why a lever moves heavy weights, why it is hot at the tropics and cold at the poles, why the moon is sometimes dark and sometimes bright, what is the cause of the tides? Do we not feel that he who is totally ignorant of these things, let him be ever so skilled in a special profession, is not an educated man, but an ignoramus? It is surely no small part of education to put us in intelligent possession of the most important and universally interesting facts of the universe, so that the world which surrounds us may not be a sealed book to us, uninteresting because unintelligible.All around us we see the deterioration of sound thinking and the devastating results of letting impulsive emotional responses carry the day. It is evident that the lifeblood of any culture is a cool and rational public. To the extent that National Geographic continues to promote this state of affairs - with information, not with hype - I say it is useful.